Karlag HQ at Dolinka. They have preserved the building as it was.

“Karlag” is the abbreviation of Karagandinskii ispravitel’no-trudovoi lager (Карагандинский исправительно-трудовой лагер), the Russian for Karaganda Corrective Labor Camp, the largest of the camps that comprised the Gulag. On my recent trip to Karaganda, I spent my first day at Dolinka, a small town 45km to the southwest. Dolinka was home to Karlag headquarters. The old administrative building from which Karlag was run is now a museum to Stalin’s victims.

The Gulag was most notably introduced to the West by Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago (1973). Under Stalin, Soviet “criminals” were sent to labor camps in some of the least hospitable regions of the USSR to perform hard labor: coal mining in Kolyma, agriculture on the Kazakh steppe, the construction of the Belomor canal north of Moscow. According to an authoritative study by Steven A. Barnes, Death and Redemption, 18 million souls passed through the Gulag system–approximately 6% of the USSR’s population as it was in 1991–and many died or otherwise never returned to their families and homes.

There are many myths that surround the Gulag. One is that it was a wholly capricious system in which the majority of inmates were innocent of crimes as we, in the West, perceive crime. Another is that the Gulag was a system of death camps.

The Belorussian monument at Spassk

Karlag’s history demonstrates that it is wrong to think of the Soviet corrective labor system as similar in a substantive way either to German concentration camps on the one hand or the American internment camps for Japanese[-Americans] in WWII on the other. For one thing, Karlag was much larger than any camps in either of those systems: 200km wide at its widest and 300km long at its tallest, our tour guide at Dolinka compared it to the size of France (670,000sq. km). This is not quite accurate because Karlag was not a rectangle, but the point stands. This camp was on the scale of small or mid-sized European countries. There is no way that such a massive territory could be efficiently patrolled and guarded as to be impenetrable either in or out.

Moreover, as Barnes argues convincingly, unlike a Nazi camp, Karlag was a penal colony with the reeducation through labor and reintegration of its prisoner population into Soviet society as its ultimate goal. At Karlag, inmates  were put to work by and large in agriculture and animal herding.

Lastly, the inmates ranged from prisoners of political conscience and innocents ratted out for allegedly having spoken even a few words against the State to hardened criminals, POWs and others who might “conventionally” be considered threats to the the general population. Again drawing from Barnes, the

The monument to repressed artists at Dolinka

Gulag system developed a remarkably complex bureaucracy and system of institution with which to sort and categorize prisoners: those considered more dangerous were sent to the most distant and difficult camps.

None of this is to say, however, that the system was not deeply perverse. The “most dangerous” criminals were those who were the “counterrevolutionary agitators,” i.e. “politicals” from the intelligentsia. Thieves and professional criminals were treated with greater leniency because, in the eyes of the state, these people were closer to the working classes and more redeemable.

Furthermore, Stalin frequently classed whole populations of people as suspect and had them deported into the Soviet hinterland. Thus in the 1930s Poles were the first to be relocated from the European Soviet Union to Kazakhstan; later quite literally all of the Chechens and the Ingush were deported to Karaganda. But as in Dante’s Inferno, there were gradations of Hell. The deportees did not technically live within the borders of Karlag. They lived much as the free citizens of Kazakhstan at the time. However, Karlag’s administration was bureaucratically responsible for the deportee populations, and the deportees could not freely relocate elsewhere. They were, in effect, put under house arrest in new homes in a different republic of the Soviet Union. Interestingly – and something never mentioned in the museum at Dolinka – Barnes writes that ethnic Kazakhs were rarely incarcerated at Karlag. It would have been too easy for them to slip into the steppe and hide among the free population. Kazakh Gulag prisoners were sent to camps within Russia.

Israeli monument at Spassk

The museum was otherwise decent, but the fate to befall Karlag inmates and deportees was better communicated by walking across the land these people were forced to work and from which they had to eek not only subsistence, but also production quotas of wheat. Labor above and beyond the Plan was the way to demonstrate ones reform and commitment to Soviet society. But even on the spring day on which I visited, it was cold and wet, and the soil looked neither rich nor fertile. It is hard to imagine inmates’ suffering in the depths of winter and peaks of summer.

An associated monument to Stalin’s victims is at Spassk, the site of a former POW camp under the umbrella of Karlag. Spassk now houses a series of monuments. Countries from which citizens were interned either as military combatants or as suspect peoples have erected stone markers reminiscent of large gravestones. The countries include Belorussia, Russia, Ukraine and also France, Korea and Israel, among others. Each has a simple inscription in several languages. There is little fanfare around the stones; behind them stand several unmarked black crosses of different sizes and unknown provenance. Together, the markers are a quiet, dignified and fitting memorial out on the steppe.

The steppe near Dolinka and Karlag on the day we visited


Our car sunk into some mud while fording a stream. We had to call for help, which took several hours to arrive.

I spent last weekend on the true Central Kazakh steppe in and around the city of Karaganda. I hope to post at least a few times about my trip and this unassuming city, because I found the former so enjoyable and the latter so interesting. Today, however, I am going to post only about the steppe.

I traveled to Karaganda with Ashleigh, a fellow Fulbrighter and PhD candidate in archeology. Ashleigh lived in Karaganda from August 2011 through the long winter months before moving to Almaty, and she needed to return to say her thank-yous and goodbyes. Generously, she let me and another American friend tag along.

Leroy, Victor and Ashleigh in Victor’s office.

On the middle day of our three-day trip, Ashleigh’s academic supervisor in Kazakhstan, Victor, offered to take us out onto the steppe. Victor is an ethnic Russian born in Kazakhstan and has made a career and international name for himself as an expert on the early populations of this area. He is short, pot-bellied, and his is shock of white hair and bright blue eyes stand out against his tanned, leathery skin.

Victor also struck me as the quintessential archeologist: his animation belied his age, and while he seemed distracted and absent-minded in his office, he was altogether different once on the steppe. We drove for kilometers over what appeared to me to be untouched terrain before suddenly stopping and piling out of the SUV. Victor would then stalk around in the grass for a bit, eyes focused on the ground as (Ashleigh explained to me) he kicked over rocks looking for archeological remnants. Then he would call us over and show us, hidden under the grasses or shrubs, an artificial arrangement of rocks marking a grave or structure from (depending on the arrangement) the Turkic period, the Iron Age, or even the Bronze Age. He showed us kurgans, the grave-mounds famous across Eurasia, and identified the value of various geologic formations to the early peoples of what became Kazakhstan.

Descriptions of the steppe tend to focus on its emptiness. Lev Gumilev, perhaps the most famous Soviet ethnologist and anthropologist, described the steppe as “monotonous,” and a 1917 description by one M. Dostoyevsky (no known relation to the famous Dostoyevsky) emphasizes how ethnic Russians felt upon first beholding the steppe:

Travelers, coming to Turkestan from Russia on the Samara-Tashkent railway, as soon as Orenburg begin to feel the influence of Asia. The first thing thrown before their eyes is the incomprehensible steppe—flat, without a single tree; desert, with out any signs of life. Infinite—they stricken by the greatness of death; they are charmed by the beauty and peace. (Quoted in:

However, other observers have seen more potential in the steppe. According to the ancient animistic religion known here as Tengrism, Tengri is the god of the sky, the mother goddess Umai is the earth, and people live between them. The photo above suggests the ideational origins of this creation story.  More recently, the contemporary artist Elena Vorobyeva writes: “The steppe is a huge exhibition space where the artifacts are “shown’.” Indeed, many artists before Vorobyeva have also depicted the Kazakh landscape as a dramatic backdrop or stage upon which histories large and small have been enacted.

Picnicking from the back of our car before it got stuck. We kept warm with vodka – or, at least, I did.

I have found the steppe beautiful since I crossed Mongolia by train in 2004. I was impressed by the expansiveness and temperament of the steppe. There is an almost constant wind, which in the winter months can drive temperatures far down. We were even buffeted in the spring. But with Victor and Ashleigh, I came to see the steppe in a new light. They pointed out to me the varieties of grasses and flowers that each survive the harsh climate in their own way; they explained the ancient geology (that the extensive coal deposits indicate that this was once a forest, and that the steppe is created by wind-borne loess burying mountains geography beneath it); and most of all, they illuminated the cultures of the people who lived here millennia ago. The number of pre-modern graves we spotted during just our one “expedition” made it clear that this land is and has been far from empty for centuries.

Of all the unexpected revelations, however, I was most invigorated by something entirely unexpected: the smell. Artemisia, which smells a bit like sage, and other fragrant grasses grow in patches across the steppe. The spring wind carries their scents to the lucky noses of whosoever happens to be there to smell them.

I should be careful. It is easy to wax lyrical about the steppe after a visit in spring in a comfortable car. As I mentioned, and as the passaged quoted above emphasizes, the steppe is also a very violent and inhospitable place. Ashleigh describes living through the winter in Karaganda with colorful, evocative language, and I am not envious of that experience. Moreover, life on the steppe has never been easy, whether one was a nomad here centuries ago or a labor camp prisoner under the Soviets (the subject of my next post about Karaganda). Even today, maintaining infrastructure in this region is difficult and expensive. Nonetheless, the steppe undoubtedly possesses a remarkable romance.

Looking down on my companions from a hill.